In this post I’ll share with you how I’ve managed to stick with my New Year’s resolution to train 20 minutes a day, six days a week, by designing my own behavior and avoiding payment to an NGO that I hate.
December 2019. Two major events were about to happen in the year to come.
In February, the second child in my family was to be born, and a month after that I was turning 40. A big number. A round number. A mid-life crisis number.
So I said to myself, Dori (I always talk to myself in second person when confronting big decisions), look at yourself. You can’t climb two floors without gasping. You can’t reach your ankles with your hands. Better shape up before you start looking like your age. 2019 is your year!
And so I began the new year excited, super motivated, with a pair of new shoes to help me ignite my new habit.
Then nothing happened for two months.
I scheduled another meeting with myself. This time I decided to spend some time thinking about how I should instill this new habit. You are doing this for clients (second person again); why not design your own behavior?
Habits and Behavioral Design
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, lays out a simple “habit model” that describes how habits are born and preserved.
It’s a simple 3-step model: cue, routine and reward.
Take for example the three o’clock cookie habit.
Cue: Three o’clock in the afternoon. Tiredness creeps in, sugar is needed.
Routine: Drag your feet to the kitchen. Open the jar. Eat a cookie.
Reward: The wonderful, sugar-coated cookie.
The reward reinforces the behavior as a pleasurable thing, and tomorrow, come three o’clock, we will already taste the cookie in our mouth. All there’s left to do is to joyfully go and grab it.
The first thing I did in designing my own new habit was to place it within this model.
Eight o’clock in the morning. Every day, six days a week. Why eight? That’s the time when I come back home after dropping the kids off at kindergarten. I have about 30 minutes to myself before my day officially starts.
It’s a good cue because it follows a routine I already had, so no need to come up with something completely new. Eight o’clock, I’m back home, I start training.
It’s very important that the routine is convenient and automatic.
Convenient — So I won’t have to get in my car and drive somewhere, because then it won’t happen.
Automatic — So I won’t have to think about what I’m supposed to do in my training or make any decision regarding it.
In short, I want someone to tell me exactly what to do, and it has to happen in the comfort of my home. The perfect solution for me was, of course, Jillian Michaels.
Jillian Michaels is an American fitness guru who designed the training routine for “The Biggest Loser.” She has tons of DVDs with hilarious names like “Killer Buns” and “Yoga Inferno,” and if one thing is certain, it’s that she will put you through hell via your phone.
Michaels’ app allows you to define the total training time and intensity level, and that’s about it. Then she guides you through it. No thought needed.
By and large, sport has built-in rewards. Short-term, our brains manufacture endorphins, neurotransmitters that make us feel good about ourselves. Long-term, there are results. We look better, we feel better.
So how come not everyone is addicted to sports?
Well… these rewards sometimes pale in regards to the suffering involved in training. On a rainy morning, when I come back dripping wet after dropping off the kids and the night before I had a few drinks with my friends, the thought of endorphins just won’t cut it. No. The reward has to be enhanced.
The NGO and the Punishment
The idea of going with a punishment instead of a reward came to me after I couldn’t agree with myself on a proper reward scheme for my new fitness habits. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted as a reward that was not already a part of my life.
I remembered that I read in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational about an alarm clock that automatically donates money to an NGO that the clock owner dislikes each time she taps the snooze button.
In the same manner, I’ve decided that for every two trainings that I miss in a month, I will have to pay $50 to an NGO that I hate.
Why pay a horrible NGO instead of donating money for a good cause?
Because if I was to pay toward a good cause, it would be easy for me to pay myself out of the training. Cold, raining and I’m hungover? No problem. $50 for the poor and everybody’s happy.
But paying people whose view of life you strongly disagree with? Well… there’s a big emotional impact there. I searched for an NGO that would cost me my health to pay them even one cent.
The NGO that I found is called LEHAVA — a bunch of ultra far right activists whose opinions and doings I strongly disagree with. I printed a picture of Bentzi, the NGO’s chairman, and pasted it on my computer screen. “You, buddy, won’t get a dime out of me!” I shouted at the picture. The habit was on.
Off to a Motivated Start
It worked like a charm. Eight o’clock, Michaels and I. One on one. I made this progress table and pasted it on the living room mirror. I’d mark every training I showed up for with a V, and an X for where I missed. I let myself miss one training per month (missing one is legit), and I’ve always skipped one training per month.
When circumstances had it that the routine was broken (kid was sick, holiday or whatever), I’d make sure to train on a Sunday so I’d not have to pay at the end of the month. It became a family affair. My girlfriend was threatening me not to dare skipping. One Sunday I trained 20 minutes instead of taking my (very needed) noon nap, right after eating a hamburger, just to deny that dreadful NGO my money.
I was flying high from all of this. I beat the system. Three months in and I’ve not skipped more than one training per month. On top of that, it was a great conversation topic. If we’ve met sometime between February and May this year, most likely I’ve told you about my morning routine and the trick with the NGO. Even if we didn’t know each other. Especially if we didn’t know each other. As a result, because I told so many people about this, another layer of commitment was spread, chaining me to my vow of training even more.
But then… the wind slowly started to change.
Notice this board from April. On 4.2.19, there’s half a V. What’s half a V? Half a training. I mean, the mat was on the floor, the weights were on it, but a few times during training I let Michaels do the exercises while I was holding the side of my body, staring at her with my tongue out, gasping for air. Half a training.
But you know what? I could live with “half trainings” every now and then. The real problem was that I started to hate my morning routine. For real. I remember mornings when I opened my eyes, happy as a clam, only to remember eight o’clock and the training ahead, and a strange roar would come out of my mouth. “ARRRRRRRRRGHHHHH, Michaels!!” And then, in my mind’s eye, came the picture of Bentzi, the chairman, my oppressor, as he spread his hands towards me and said, “Come on! Give me $50 and get it over with!”
The situation got worse until one day in June, I looked at my board and there they were — two Xs. On Sunday afternoon, my girlfriend opened the yoga mat on the floor and pointed to it. “No way,” I mumbled while eating the remains of my French fries from lunch. “I’m paying.”
My GF and I, we don’t fight much. But when we do, we put our hearts into it. This one was a tornado. I didn’t want to train and was bound by my rules. I had to pay. She said over her dead body, and that she didn’t want Google to know such things about me, and that we would be expelled from the Jewish-Arab kindergarten, and more things of that caliber.
One thing was certain. Whatever had worked for four months had stopped working. I needed a different plan.
Iterating on the design
I removed Bentzi the chairman’s photo from my computer. This punishment had made me hate my trainings, and now the relationship between Michaels and me had to be restored. Bentzi was just in the way.
Skinner, the psychologist who brought behaviorism to centerstage in the 60’s, said that we should not use punishments in education — not because they are not effective, but rather, because they are too effective.
Free-to-play games also don’t use punishments anymore. Back in the day, games like Farmville used to punish players who neglected to log into the game by killing their corn fields. Nowadays, when players come back to a game after a long hiatus, they are rewarded with a shower of virtual coins.
Rewards it is, I said to myself, and tried to come up with a proper reward scheme for my torture. For example:
- A new board game for every month with no misses
- Dinner in a fancy restaurant for every month with no misses
- A weekly, no-guilt game night for every month with no misses
… and so on. But nothing really worked. Because here’s the truth about rewards. Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. Denying myself these rewards (if not behaving as intended) turned them into punishments right away. This whole reward scheme turned the activity into a means to an end. Train — and get this. And that’s not going to work over a long period of time.
In July I barely trained and hated myself for it. I mean, I told like 700 people, with stars in my eyes, about how I beat the system, and now I was quitting after four months?
Then, I talked with my friend Uri Admin, the CEO of Captain Up (a company that offers white-label gamification services), about the whole thing and he said, “Dori, you got it all wrong. What if every time you trained, you put $10 aside for your kids?”
“Uri, you are a genius!” I replied and hung up the phone.
It lasted for two days.
When I’m on my yoga mat, sweating like a boar, and Michaels is tyrannizing me to go faster and harder, the last thing that motivates me is my two little bloodsuckers and the thought of donating more money to them.
I need something else. Then I thought… what would Arny do?
Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can say a lot of things about this guy, but one thing is certain — the man is iron-willed. He has done the unbelievable, a few times, and turned over every stone in his way.
I once heard an interview with him. He said that people asked him how he had the motivation to get up and train, every day, ridiculously hard trainings. “I was happy to train,” he said. “Because every iron pumped brought me closer to my goal.”
This is, my friends, a very strong internal motivation. The guy marked his goal — becoming the strongest man in the universe — and was happy for every step in that direction. I also needed a goal like that, I said to myself, and where Bentsi’s picture once was, I put this picture.
Now. That’s my head. But the body, of course, is photoshopped in. “Photoshop” is actually a very big word to describe that lazy design, but that’s not the point. The point is that I tried to gather all of my internal motivation towards a goal I thought I was interested in — this body.
Didn’t work. I mean, I wouldn’t mind having a body like that, but I wouldn’t die for it. What do I really want? Why did I decide to train every day? Is that just something people wish for on New Year’s Eve? I needed to go back to where everything started and check my true motivation.
What do I really want?
I needed a true answer. Some real motivation to cling to during my morning routine. Something that would help me hate the trainings a little bit less. Maybe even enjoy them, if it was at all possible.
So, what do I really want?
- Feel good about myself during the day
- Begin my day with a sense of accomplishment
- A slimmer, more fit body
- Persist with doing something even if I don’t like it that much because it’s good for me
Out of these four, the “persistency” hit the mark. Whenever I don’t feel like training, I say to myself, “Only 20 minutes and you’ll feel great about not giving up. Worth it?” The answer is (95% of the time) — yes.
Also, I continued iterating my habit according to the 3-step model.
I drop off my kids at the kindergarten already dressed in my training outfit. I look ridiculous. Seriously. But I don’t care. If I wear these clothes when I’m back home, there’s a big chance I will actually do the routine.
I wondered how I could make the training a little bit nicer. The answer came to me in the form of Google Home. I find this device completely useless and good for one thing only: playing music. It’s a simple thing, but up until Google Home, I couldn’t play any music during training because my phone was busy playing Michaels. Now, on my way back from the kindergarten, I think of an artist that I haven’t heard in a long time and then listen to them while training, which makes it all a little more bearable.
As a reward, I’ve extended my “me” time. After the morning training and shower, I make myself coffee and chill for about 15 minutes, browsing for new games/board games, and think about my day. It’s great. And I feel I’ve earned it.
What have I learned?
I’ve learned a lot from the habit-making process and its different iterations. If I was to format the process to an applicable model, it would look like this:
- Define desirable outcome. What would you like to happen?
- Define motivation. Why would you like that to happen?
- Define habit / desired actions
- Behavioral design: cue, routine, reward
- Constant iterations of all 4 steps
I’ve also learned the importance of setting meetings with yourself — preferably, recurring meetings, at the same time every day, to make this thing you want to do a reality. If you just say, “I’ll start training tomorrow” without scheduling a time for that in your calendar — it won’t happen.
I’ve also learned that telling people about your new habit helps a lot in preserving it.
So, my attempt at training every day has been (in the meantime) successful. It started off as kind of a joke, but now it is actually happening.
The new year is around the corner, and it may serve as a good cue for you to try something new in your life. Try to design your new habit. Make appointments with yourself. And don’t take it hard if you fail. Every good design starts off with a few failures.